Bernie Sanders: A Candidate on the Cusp of Relevance

Politics is not a game for the faint of heart. It’s said that if you want a friend in Washington — buy a dog. It’s best to buy one willing to hunt.

These are trying times. For Bernie Sanders, they may be the most trying of his political career.

The Vermont senator is said to be considering whether to stay in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. After Tuesday’s losses in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona, it’s a race all but impossible for him to win.

Pressure to retire from the field of competition, before the next round of primaries in April, is predictably being brought to bear on Sanders by a host of Democrats with one thing on their minds — getting behind a single candidate and focusing all their resources and efforts on the defeat of Donald Trump.

As he did following his wins the week before, Biden reached out to Sanders’s supporters after his victories in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona —

Let me say especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders: I hear you.

Senator Sanders and I may disagree on tactics, but we share a common vision — for the need to provide affordable healthcare for all Americans, reduce income inequity that has risen so drastically, to tackling the existential threat of our time — climate change.

I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do. Our goal, as a campaign and my goal as a candidate for president, is to unify this party and then to unify the nation.

The reality is that neither Biden nor Sanders knows what the Democratic establishment must do to bring progressives and moderates into alignment and facing forward to November.

Both septuagenarians have their work cut out for them. The task of unifying the Democratic Party may prove more problematic for Biden than defeating Trump in the general election.

For Sanders negotiating an alliance between democratic socialists and the Democratic establishment they blame for denying them their rightful future may be beyond even his charismatic charms. To further complicate matters, Sanders must do this all while maintaining his leadership of the progressive movement.

To understand the difficulties that lie ahead in efforts to meld moderate and progressive Democrats into a cohesive political force — powerful enough to defeat Trump and capture Congress — requires an appreciation of what motivates them.

At the moment, what’s motivating the Democratic establishment and its acknowledged 2020 standard-bearer is not having a repeat of 2016. Acrimony, rather than matrimony, characterized the relationship between the Clinton and Sanders forces going in to and coming out of the Philadelphia nominating convention.

The convention opened amidst the release of hacked emails that confirmed for Sanders’s supporters what they had long believed — that Clinton’s nomination was rigged against the Vermont senator from the beginning. Bernie’s supporters have not forgotten 2016. Now, their numbers have been added to by a new generation of political activists — many of whom were too young to vote four years ago, and whose loyalty to the Democratic Party is unclear and untested.

Sanders’s efforts to bring his forces into line with Clinton’s were not spectacularly successful. The “we can do” spirit that brought Sanders to the brink of nomination was found nontransferable. Many of his supporters just didn’t show up at polling places in November 2016. Once behind closed curtains, others pulled the lever for Trump.

Three plus years of Trump has likely dampened the willingness of every Bernie supporter to cast their lots for a man whose acts as president are an anathema. A failure to campaign and vote for Biden, however, could again help to secure Trump the presidency.

Notwithstanding the colossal drubbing Biden has been serving up to Sanders in recent primaries, Democrats are going to need the lion’s share of Bernie supporters to take back the Oval Office.

To take the Senate as well as the House, Democrats will need the entirety of its establishment regulars, all of Sanders’s supporters, Republican crossover voters, and a good dose of dumb luck in November. Although challenging, a Democratic hat trick in 2020 is possible.

Sanders has run to ground in Vermont, where he is reported thinking about what he wants to do — continue in the primaries or suspend his campaign. The Senator is never going to be in a stronger position to negotiate the terms of his exit than he is at this moment.

Biden’s momentum and the demographics of the remaining primary states, with the possible exceptions of Wisconsin and New Mexico, will inevitably extend his winning streak. As Sanders loses primaries, he also loses leverage with the Democratic powers that be.

A gracious and timely exit now would allow Sanders to salvage part of his progressive platform. The presumptive candidate has already shown some willingness to move leftward. He has, for example, embraced the Green New Deal (GND) — at least in principle. Although the Biden climate defense plan received failing grades from progressive groups like The Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, it can be improved upon without having to start over.

Amending Biden’s climate plan with elements of the GND, e.g., banning fracking, could gain the active support of progressive environmentalists. As oil drops below $30 a barrel, a fracking ban may no longer be of much conse-quence to companies otherwise going bankrupt.

Other points of compromise and constructive negotiation include the selection of a running mate and the federal government’s paying tuition at public universities for students from families making less than $125,000 per year. Biden has committed to choosing a woman as his vice president. Because of the debt he owes Congressman Clyburn (D-SC) for his endorsement before the South Carolina primary, Biden will likely heed his mentor’s advice and select a woman of color as his running mate.

Matters beyond the party platform will be more complicated to negotiate. The will inevitably involve such questions as:

· How many progressives will be appointed to crucial convention and party committees?

· Who, other than Sanders, will be given a primetime opportunity to speak to the convention and the viewing audience?

· Which positions in a Biden administration can progressive Democrats expect to hold, e.g., Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and Secretary of Health and Human Services?

· Where will Sanders and other of his supporters, e.g., Ocasio-Cortez, be sent to speak on behalf of Biden and down-ballot candidates?

In 2016 Sanders led a revolutionary force mostly of his making. In 2020, the progressive movement is being marshaled by a new generation of leaders and organizations. For emerging progressive leaders like Representatives Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who lost out to Tom Perez as Chair of the Democratic Party, Sanders has been a horse already saddled and in the race. All they needed to do was to climb on.

Had progressives been faced with putting up one of their generation to compete with establishment Democrats for the nomination, they would never have made it this far. Witness their efforts to gain House leadership positions following the 2018 blue wave election.

What happens to Sanders as a revolutionary leader should he drop out of the race? Will he continue to be part of the power flow once he steps from the stream?

Sanders has several tough weeks ahead of him. He’s wise to return to Vermont and use the time between now and the next primary elections to decide his steps. Sanders is a practiced politician. I believe he’ll make wise choices.

Oh, wait — is that Sanders I see and with a puppy?


Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney with over 40 years of experience in federal and state energy, environmental and sustainability issues.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store